04/11/2004 11:00PM

This year, don't believe your eyes

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NEW YORK - Of the three major Kentucky Derby preps run on Saturday, the one that was won with the most impressive visual performance was actually slowest in terms of both actual and relative time. The one that looked like it kind of fell apart late was actually the fastest. The one that was the vanilla in between was won by the colt who may well be the favorite on Derby Day.

Funny how this makes perfect sense, what with the way things have gone on the road to this year's Kentucky Derby.

The eye-catching performance that was a yawner against the clock was Tapit's victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Last of 11 down the backstretch over a track that was tilted toward speed all day, Tapit advanced five wide around the far turn to reach striking position at the top of the stretch. At that point, Tapit betrayed his inexperience - the Wood was only the fourth start of his career - and cocked his head to the right to gawk at the stands. It was only in deep stretch that Tapit straightened himself out and measured the wire, and when he did, he surged late to be up in time.

This was an admirable effort, especially when you also consider that Tapit couldn't have gotten much out of a noneffort in the slow Florida Derby, and that he came out of that first race of the year with lungs full of crud. However, anyone's enthusiasm over Tapit's resurgence has to be tempered with the knowledge that his effort was good for a Beyer Speed Figure of 98. That made this the slowest Wood Memorial since at least 1990, when Beyer Figures first became available to the public, and fell 13 points, or about eight lengths, below what Empire Maker earned for winning last year's Wood Memorial.

Of course, there is reason to believe that Tapit, and perhaps a couple of those who finished behind him Saturday (most notably Master David, who was second in his first start in two months), will improve in the Beyer department next time. But if the 111 Beyer for the Blue Grass at Keeneland is to be believed, Tapit and company are going to have to improve by about eight lengths to catch up with what The Cliff's Edge and Lion Heart did finishing first and second in the Blue Grass. And, even being mindful of how wildly 3-year-olds can improve this time of year, that is still an imposing gap to close.

The big Beyer in the Blue Grass, which was a little more than four points above the average since 1990, was a bit of a surprise for those who watched the race closely. Taking nothing away from The Cliff's Edge - who improved an almost implausible 21 Beyer points off his close third in the Florida Derby (take heart, Tapit) to upset the 4-5 Lion Heart by a half-length - it is still worth noting that Lion Heart was curiously ridden in the early stages. And that contributed to the impression, which has basis in fact, that the first two came home slowly, even if they did draw well clear of the rest.

Lion Heart was the lone speed in the Blue Grass, but jockey Mike Smith, who never met a wide path he didn't like, seemed reluctant to capitalize on this huge advantage, and allowed not one but two horses to slip inside of him going into the first turn. This, at the speed-on-the-rail paradise known as Keeneland! Then, in order to seize control of the pace that should have been his from the outset, Lion Heart had to run a second quarter in 22.90 seconds.

The cost of that demanding second quarter became evident nearing the stretch. Almost an instant after Lion Heart began drawing away on the far turn, threatening to turn the Blue Grass into a rout, his lead began to diminish turning for home, and he suddenly looked shaky. There was a good reason for that. Lion Heart was out of gas, and the final three-eighths of a mile in 38.30 seconds was evidence of that. It was only because of his courage that the finish was as close as it was.

It was not a close finish in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, although you couldn't tell by watching the race on NBC, which sank to new depths of camera work by using a stretch camera positioned at the eighth pole. With that view, we got a great shot of Smarty Jones's rear end as he reached the finish first yet again. But at least that is the same view every single horse who has ever faced him has had in the stretch. Smarty Jones's Arkansas Derby Beyer, 107, fell between the Wood and the Blue Grass, and he still has questions to answer in terms of distance and class. But in a year that lacks a compelling Derby horse and intriguing Derby story lines, why shouldn't this overachieving, and still undefeated, blue-collar colt be the Derby favorite? Bettors have already taken a shine to him. Smarty Jones was, after all, the shortest price of all the individual betting interests in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.